With the NRM's accession to power, the very existence of the old political parties, particularly the DP and the UPC, became an issue. The Ten-Point Program blamed much of Uganda's previous difficulties on the excessive reliance of the leaders of the old parties upon manipulation of ethnic and religious loyalties for their own benefit. The alternative, though not spelled out, would be politics without parties. Even though the results were rigged, the 1980 general elections had demonstrated that both the DP and the UPC retained a mass following despite their repression by the Amin dictatorship and that the UPM, the predecessor party of many important NRM leaders, did not attract many voters. For its own part, the NRM claimed that it was a political movement, not a party; but the NRM did not have sufficient political support to liquidate the old parties. Instead, in an ambiguous, informal, and often shifting compromise, it restricted the public activities of the old parties but invited several of their political leaders to participate in its cabinet and even to contest RC elections.
The old parties were permitted to maintain their headquarters and to issue statements but could not hold rallies or campaign on behalf of candidates for RC elections. This decision stirred fears among adherents of the old parties that the NRM intended to consolidate its hold on power and eventually eliminate them. Nevertheless, the NRM's adroit use of another of its principles, broad-based government, kept an uneasy peace with the parties, particularly the DP, through the appointment of party leaders to important government positions. The DP was awarded so many important portfolios in the first cabinet in 1986 that it almost seemed to be the senior coalition partner. In addition, the NRM turned a blind eye toward the successful election of many DP party members in RC elections during the first two years of the interim period. According to the DP's own estimates, it had won 84 percent of the seats in RC-Vs, the district resistance councils, in twenty-two of the then thirty-three districts, compared with only 7 percent for the NRM and 7 percent for the UPC.
At the DP's insistence, the NRM met sporadically between 1986 and March 1988 for private discussions over the appropriate party system for Uganda. These meetings ended when the NRM unilaterally insisted that party activities must be suspended for an unspecified period of time, after which a referendum would be held to decide whether the constitution would adopt a system permitting multiparty competitive politics. Northerners in the rebel Uganda People's Democratic Army (UPDA) expressed similar anxieties. In the peace agreement they signed with the NRM in June 1988, they insisted on a national referendum on the party system and on the form of government to replace interim rule. However, the relationship of the referendum to the process of drafting a new constitution, or even if one would be held, remained unclear at the end of 1990.
When the NRM extended its prohibition on parties to prevent them from campaigning and from nominating candidates for new members of the NRC in the elections of February 1989, the issue became considerably more threatening to the officials of the old parties. The UPC promptly responded by denouncing the elections as a charade intended to consolidate the NRM's grip on power and by insisting that no UPC members would participate. Nonetheless, several prominent UPC politicians did contest NRC seats, but without making any public reference to their party identity. Even more DP politicians ran for the NRC while also following the government rules. After the elections, the DP headquarters issued a statement deploring the ban on parties and warning the NRM not to impose its own choice of government on the people. The DP appeared to have lost its pre-eminent position in the lower RC elections in 1989, and it did not do particularly well in the parliamentary contests either, though its members probably won more elections than UPC politicians. However, data to substantiate this point were not available. Leaders of the NRM defended the elections as successful because they were free from overt sectarian influences. But many observers believed that the NRM's chances for continuing in power through elections might depend on not having to compete on an equal footing with the other parties. If that prediction were widely believed by Ugandans, the Constitutional Assembly, likely to be the next arena to consider this issue, could find it difficult to resolve.
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